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Posted on Jun 30, 2006 in Carlo D'Este, Front Page Features

Ike: World War II’s Indispensable General, Part 6

By Carlo D'Este

In this final installment of the series on Dwight Eisenhower, we will look back at the U.S. Army’s deadliest battle of World War II, the Bulge.

Although it is called the Battle of the Bulge, it was actually a series of battles fought over a period of over a month in and around the Ardennes Forest.

Some of you may recall an earlier article on Montgomery and the Bulge which appeared in September 2005. While there are, of course, inescapable similarities, this article focuses on the Battle of the Bulge from Eisenhower’s perspective.

By October and continuing throughout the autumn of 1944 the various Allied intelligence staffs were aware that the Germans had assembled the Sixth Panzer Army in the area east of Aachen. However, the positioning of its divisions was misinterpreted by Allied intelligence as preparation for defending the Reich against what SHAEF defined as “a final showdown before the winter,” rather than as the buildup for a massive counteroffensive. The lone exception was the astute Third Army G-2, Colonel Oscar Koch, the only Allied intelligence officer who was not deceived by the German buildup opposite the Ardennes. Even as Patton’s Third Army staff was planning a major new offensive to commence on December 19 to crack the Siegfried Line and drive to the Rhine, Eisenhower had already made up his mind that “regardless of the results” of the forthcoming offensive, to transfer divisions from Third Army to the northern armies to support a breaching of the Rhine and the main assault into the heartland of the Reich.

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While Koch closely noted signs of further German build-up, Third Army was also planning measures to counter any potential threat in the Ardennes so that, “We’ll be in a position to meet whatever happens,” Patton told his staff.

By mid-December the fighting had become sporadic and with Christmas barely a week away there was something of a lull in the bloodletting brought about largely by the weather. In the rugged, heavily forested Ardennes, with its poor road net, Bradley, had taken what he later described as “a calculated risk” by lightly defending what had traditionally been a major German invasion route. On the thinly-held front lines were only two newly arrived, untested American infantry divisions and two battered veteran divisions of Troy Middleton’s VIII Corps in the process of absorbing replacements. In such vile weather it was deemed unlikely the Germans could mount a serious threat. Moreover, despite Germany’s historical penchant for initiating counteroffensives when things looked darkest, it was assumed by the Allied high command that there was simply no way the Germans could secretly pull off such an operation in the Ardennes. As early as November 25 Patton had disagreed, noting that “First Army is making a terrible mistake in leaving VIII Corps static, it is highly probable that the Germans are building up east of them.”


German Panther tanks heading for the front line on a train

The dispersion of American units in the Ardennes was a direct result of Eisenhower’s broad front strategy which had been reduced to, as one historian has noted, “the premise that ‘more is better’ – that is, more tanks, more bullets, more beans, more fuel, and above all more men. ‘More men’ was Eisenhower’s principal worry on 16 December 1944, not the threat of a German attack.” Indeed, the existing situation in the Ardennes, concludes Russell F. Weigley, was a fundamental and damaging flaw. “It was not that the broad-front strategy was wrong; the more basic trouble was that the Anglo-American alliance had not given Eisenhower enough troops to carry it out safely. . . There were not enough Anglo-American divisions, or enough replacements for casualties in the existing divisions. Eisenhower could not create a reserve unless he abandoned the broad-front strategy.”

Moreover, notes Weigley, “the events unfolding in the Ardennes on December 16 indicated that the ninety-division gamble had gone sour. The American army in Europe fought on too narrow a margin of physical superiority for the favored American broad-front strategy to be anything but a risky gamble.” Eisenhower would later accept and fully merit responsibility for the dispositions of his armies that permitted the Germans to mount their counteroffensive. Yet, there was another basic reason why the Allies were about to be caught with their pants down: “everyone at SHAEF was thinking offensively, about what they could do to the enemy, and never about what the enemy might do to them…”

The German counteroffensive in the Ardennes would turn out to be the latest example learned and re-learned the hard way by the Allies during World War II: expect the unexpected. From North Africa to Arnhem and the Ardennes, the German army could be counted upon never to panic and always to fight back tenaciously with whatever reserves could be mustered. Thus, it should not have come as the surprise it did that, with Allied operations a standstill and the Third Reich on the verge of invasion from both east and west, Adolf Hitler elected to gamble the fate of Germany on a last ditch attempt to salvage the war by a sudden, lightning blitzkrieg thrust through the Ardennes.

The twin keys to a German success were surprise and speed: splitting the Allied front and driving across the Meuse before the Allies could react. Hitler’s intent was nothing less than the destruction of all Allied forces north of a line running from Bastogne to Antwerp. Seeking to repeat the success of the 1940 invasion of western Europe which had worked to near perfection, Hitler believed that once across the River Meuse and into the Belgian lowlands beyond the Ardennes, his armies could drive clear to Antwerp and, with this vital port in German hands, compel the Allies to sue for peace.

To accomplish this Herculean task, Hitler assembled in great secrecy a massive force of three armies, consisting of twenty-eight divisions, twelve of which were panzer, to launch the first and only German counteroffensive of the war in Northwest Europe.

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